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In Zuccotti Park

Henny Ray Abrams/AP Images
Clergymen carrying a papier-mâché effigy of the biblical golden calf to the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park, New York City, October 9, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement that began in Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district on September 17 has grown to a degree that seems to have stunned even its organizers and most ardent supporters. From the first days, most news outlets, if they deigned to cover the movement at all, ridiculed the protesters for lacking a specific political agenda or concrete demands. They were “leaderless,” “directionless.” But less in this case has proven to be more: Occupy Wall Street’s vague, open-ended character has been crucial to its success. The catchphrase “We are the 99 percent” has a galvanizing succinctness, speaking directly to a wealth gap that has widened over the past decade to a point not seen since the Great Depression.*

The movement’s official Declaration of Occupation, released on September 29, is little more than a highly generalized incantation of the nation’s ills—“They have taken our houses…. They have poisoned the food supply…. They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate.” But the movement’s assertion that it is an ally to “all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world” has made it a blank screen upon which the grievances of a huge swath of the population can be projected.

The most common question asked about the protesters—after what do they want?—is, who are the organizers, who is behind it? Occupy Wall Street is the kind of deliberately elusive movement that, once the question is posed, its very premise is disputed: the word “organizer” is pregnant with just the kind of hierarchical connotations the protesters eschew. Nevertheless, there are organizers, and they are extremely astute, as well as reluctant to put forward their names. To them, “leaderless” is not an insult but an ideal.

By all accounts, the idea for the protest was hatched by Adbusters, a not-for-profit media organization that was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1989. After subscribing to their magazine, I received the following e-mail:

Dear Culture Jammer,
Thank you for joining our network. You are now part of a 90,000+ strong global network of activists, cultural creative’s [sic] and meme insurgents—a revolutionary force that, with your active involvement, just might reshape how power and meaning flow in the 21st century. Together lets live a little more on the wild side, launch a few telling cultural interventions and pull off some surprising pranks, jams and other essential mental resuscitations.

The antic, Dadaist tone is telling. This is a movement that addresses the mind, not the belly—“mental environmentalism,” the founders of Adbusters dubbed it, an antidote to the “pollution of our minds” by “infotoxins…commercial messaging and the…financial and ethical catastrophes that loom before humanity.” This sounds more like something that was cooked up in a university linguistics class than by conventional grassroots populists. But when combined with anarchism, the hacktivism of the WikiLeaks phenomenon, and the arcane theories of Guy Debord and the so-called Situationists on the May 1968 student demonstrations in Paris, a potently popular recipe appears to have emerged. It is, as Janet Malcolm put it in a different context, yet “another example of the Zeitgeist’s uncanny ways.”

In mid-July, a senior editor at Adbusters, Micah White, floated an e-mail to subscribers with the idea that they “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades, and occupy Wall Street for a few months.” As a result, a group of about one hundred people began meeting regularly in Tompkins Square Park to plan the protest, creating the NYC General Assembly, a bold and difficult experiment in direct democracy that has become the ever-expanding decision-making body of Occupy Wall Street. At some point during the summer, the loose collection of hackers known as Anonymous joined the protest. The members of Anonymous are identifiable by the Guy Fawkes masks they wear, and they are known for, among other things, their “denial of service” attacks that involve saturating target websites such as those of banks and credit card payment centers with so many requests that they overload and crash.

Much has been made of Occupy Wall Street’s conscious emulation of the mass protests last January in Cairo’s Tahrir Square—a comparison that a few weeks ago seemed like the height of delusional grandiosity, but that looks slightly less so now. Part of the emulation is strategic: the organizers of Tahrir Square used online networking sites not only to attract new followers, but to stage spontaneous protests that allowed them to stay ahead of the police. This is a new way of demonstrating that labor unions and traditional political organizers know almost nothing about, and that the hacktivists of Anonymous have mastered. Two members of Anonymous involved in the Wall Street protest who go by the names of Jackal and MotorMouth told the reporter Ayesha Kazmi of The Guardian recently of their “online flash mob” techniques of shooting out messages about street-meeting places and then appearing there as others gather.

The swift, almost simultaneous, presence of people on the street, often thanks to online messages, creates its own volatile brand of protest, in which violence of the sort that emerged in the Copenhagen demonstrations in 2009 is explicitly rejected. Kazmi writes that

when it emerged that a handful of activists were prepared to incite rioting and provoke the police days before Occupy Wall Street was to begin, Anonymous developed a Twitter application called URGE, launching an online campaign designed to quell potential violence. Anonymous “culture-jammed” Twitter with messages to keep protests peaceful, using top Twitter trends from around the world.

Tahrir Square also had the powerful advantage of a single unifying demand: the toppling of Mubarak’s government. As of this writing, the protesters of Occupy Wall Street are still debating whether to make a single political demand and what it will be, a tricky proposition that, it seems to me, they have done well to defer. Speaking to protesters in Zuccotti Park recently, I got the sense that they wished people would stop demanding a demand because the idea of one was of little interest to them. It seemed beside the point. What they cared about was the “process,” a way of thinking and interacting exemplified by their daily General Assembly meetings and the crowded, surprisingly well-mannered village they had created on the 33,000 square feet of concrete that comprises Zuccotti Park.

Some spectacular blunders by the police—especially the irresponsible use of pepper spray—placed the protest firmly in the media spotlight. Sympathizers then came streaming into the park in increasing numbers and at all hours of the day to volunteer some form of involvement. This, it seemed, was really the main project of the Occupy Wall Street organizers: to acquaint these new volunteers with their new version of democracy. It was impressive to watch the friendly solemnity of the teachers, if that’s what they were (they had probably volunteered only a few days before themselves), as they explained the protocols of the General Assembly. Why, they asked, curtail the growing mystique of Occupy Wall Street with something as ordinary as a political demand?

Demands could be made, of course. Micah White and other protesters have spoken of the need to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act that, since 1933, had separated investment and commercial banking. (Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999 to facilitate the merger of Travelers Group and Citicorp, now Citigroup, setting off what many believe to be a decade of ruinous speculation. Some of the Glass-Steagall provisions are reflected in the Volcker Rule included in the Dodd-Frank Act.) But to argue for Glass-Steagall is to infer that the existing financial institutions are essentially acceptable, when in truth some of the Occupy Wall Street activists apparently don’t believe the current banking system should exist at all. The same is true of tax reform: a tax on Wall Street would go to politicians controlled by Wall Street.

There was, according to this rhetoric, no way out but all the way out: a complete dismantling of the banking system and, as I heard many protesters call for, the abolition of the Federal Reserve. If this were overtly demanded, of course, the movement would collapse, since it proposes a change beyond almost everyone’s imagination, with no clear idea of how money and credit would circulate. What could be offered to the swelling ranks of sympathizers, however, were “mind bombs” and “anti-corporate epiphanies” (to quote from an e-mail Adbusters sent to me), a mental detox right there in Zuccotti Park.

Entering Zuccotti Park on October 4, a Tuesday, I felt as if I had walked into an impromptu forum. The park itself, which was renovated in 2006, is rather festive with its locust trees, its areas of planted chrysanthemums, and, near the southeast corner, an anodyne red sculpture by Mark di Suvero entitled Joie de Vivre that rises seventy feet into the air. The encampment was surprisingly well organized, with a “People’s Library” of plastic bins containing the kind of books you would find in a middle-class beach house. There was a phone-charging station, a medical area, a kitchen, and, along the southern wall of the park, a sleeping zone clumped with blankets, sleeping bags, rain tarps, and various personal belongings. A group of young men swept up refuse and put it in garbage bags. Spontaneous debates broke out among the constantly forming and dissolving clusters of people—about home schooling, vegetarianism, racial profiling on the part of taxi drivers who are racially profiled themselves…

Microphones and cameras were thrust forward without warning, belonging to members of the press or demonstrators, one couldn’t always tell. As often as not they came from a core group of protesters who were live-streaming the activities in the park on a Web network called Global Revolution. Their command post (though they would strongly reject the phrase) comprised the inviolable hub of the encampment: the computer equipment was guarded unthreateningly by the people’s security force who stood ready to form a protective phalanx around the area should trouble arise.

The mood was expectant, spirits generally high, though not without a dampening note of ambivalence. Several of New York’s most important unions—including those of health care workers, teachers, transit workers, and communications workers—had organized a march to Foley Square for the following day in support of Occupy Wall Street. The significance of these endorsements was enormous, conferring on the movement an instant legitimacy that many of its most seasoned members had not expected and that some had not wanted at all. Several protesters anxiously told me of their determination “to keep the process pure” in the face of the new outside pressures. “Horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based” democracy was still in a delicate, experimental phase. (So said an article, “Occupation for Dummies,” by Nathan Schneider in the movement’s broadsheet paper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal, whose initial print run of 50,000 was paid for by a campaign on the fund-raising site Kickstarter.)

  1. *

    The Washington Post has calculated that in 2010 the top 1 percent made a minimum of $516,633, with an average total wealth per person of $14 million. See Suzy Khimm, “Who Are the 1 Percent?,” October 6, 2011. 

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